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Freezing and Alone in the White Mountains

For the last 2 days, from the moment I got back to my car, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this run. I've been thinking about a Facebook/Instagram post, I've reached out to a few friends with my (much more brief) thoughts on the matter, but I just didn't know how to memorialize and share this feeling I felt. A feeling that was so fulfilling and so intense that it was unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life. It is a feeling that I truly hope everyone in the world can experience at some time in their lives.

Now, I know that this is a little off topic on the rest of my writing and the general theme of the blog, but give me a few minutes and I'll get there. I'll be the first to tell you that I abandoned religion over a decade ago and that I identify as an Atheist. I grew up in a semi-religious Baptist household and went to church with occasional regularity. Through a long series of events, education, and time I eventually decided that I personally don't believe there is sufficient evidence to believe in any deity or higher being.

What brings me here today is what happened to me on the very early morning of December 24, 2019. (sneak peek below)

Franconia Ridge Trail at sunrise

We were headed over from Maine for a few days to the in-laws place in NH for the holiday, a little bit south of the White Mountains. I was planning to find one morning to sneak up to the Whites for some adventure miles, which my soul was in desperate need of. Anyone in New England knows that the Whites are the best place for adventure. The beauty of the White Mountains and the underlying danger (at least 219 deaths have been reported in the Whites dating back to 1849) of the range all lead to the unpredictable nature and make every visit up into the White Mountains a completely different experience.

I had reached out to a few friends, but with it being a holiday I wasn't able to find anyone to accompany me into the mountains on short notice. I did some searching around Strava and Instagram to try to get an idea of the trail conditions and felt like I would be in pretty good shape with my Kathoola Microspikes to get good traction throughout the rocky, icy, snowy terrain I would encounter. I've spent a lot of hours in the White Mountains, but I've never done any extended winter running up there. The closest I came was a Pemi Loop back in 2017 in May where I got caught in some sketchy weather and had to run through some remaining half-melted snow piles along the way. Suffice to say, that was a walk in the park compared to this adventure.

My plan was to wake up about 3am, get packed up, a quick coffee, and snack and get on the road and get to the trailhead about 5am, just over an hour drive away. Originally, I was planning to head to the Lincoln Woods trailhead to run up either end of the Pemi Loop up to the Bonds or Flume and spend some time above the tree line and then head back down depending on the weather and how much time I had. About halfway there, I remembered there was about a 9 mile loop that I had done the last time Woo and I had stayed at a little B&B we were considering buying in the mountains. The loop started from the Falling Waters trailhead just off Highway 93 and covered Mount Lafayette, Little Haystack, and Lincoln. After some quick consideration, I decided that I would rather head there to do a loop than an out and back from Lincoln Woods. I knew that going up Mount Lafayette at a higher altitude and with generally worse weather may be more risky, but felt that overall it would be less time above the treeline and easier to retreat from if things got past my comfort level.

I arrived at the trailhead around 5:20 am, double checked the trail map, loaded up my Orange Mud double barrel pack, hit the porto-potty, then stated heading up around 5:45 from a beginning elevation of 1,863 ft (according to Strava). The temperature registering on my car was 25*F and it was already pretty windy at the base of the trail. On the entire drive up I could see stars covering the sky and not a cloud in sight. However, when I got to the trailhead I started to notice some clouds rolling in, and once I got to the first lookout at about 3,500 feet, I couldn't see any stars and saw a big wall of clouds just as the sky began to light up ever so slightly. I began to get disappointed that I may miss the sunrise from the mountain-top which I was chasing. I kept heading up the trail and hoped for the best. I arrived at the Greenleaf Hut around 6:30 and knew I only had about 1 mile to get to the summit of Mount Lafayette and that sunrise wasn't until 7:17am. I felt like I was a little ahead of schedule, so took my time a little bit and snapped a couple of photos around the hut and grabbed a gel to get in a few calories before heading further.

Greg Selfie at the Greenleaf Hut in mostly dark

I could definitely tell that the temperature was dropping and the wind was much more intense than it was at the trailhead. Once I passed the hut and got back into some tree-cover I unpacked my North Face waterproof rain shell and threw that on top of my other layers to protect from the wind. This thing is thinner than paper and I never felt a drift of wind come through it. As I continued up the mountain, I began to get a little nervous as to what I would find on the summit and subsequent ridge-line but I knew I had the fitness, knowledge, and gear (I was WAY over packed) to get the job done safely. When I first got out of the tree cover and onto the rocky ascent to Lafayette it was still very cloudy and mostly dark. I was slowly moving from carin to carin and on more than one occasion had trouble finding my path through the wind, ice, and clouds. I took my time and slowly made my way up, careful to stay on course. I finally made my way up to the summit of Mount Lafayette (officially 5,249' above sea level and part of the AT) at about 7am. It was covered in clouds, just like almost every other time I've been up there no matter the time of year. The sun wasn't quite up yet, but I could see occasional bursts of orange through the clouds.

Summit of Mount Lafayette trail signage covered in snow

It was brutally windy and cold at the summit. I found a big boulder to hide behind to take a couple of photos and wait for the sun to come up a bit more. I have no way to know exactly the temperature or wind above the treeline but can make an educated guess. Based on the Beaufort Scale, I would assume I was running through/against at least force 9-10 winds which range from 47 to 63 MPH. The National Severe Storm Laboratory classifies anything over 50 MPH as 'severe damaging winds', but luckily there wasn't anything on the mountain top to blow around...except me. At times, I had no choice but to move forward on my hands and knees as the winds were so strong I couldn't stand up without getting knocked over.

Temperatures had to be at or below 10*F and with the wind I am certain the "feels like" temp was far below 0*F. For comparison, winds on Mount Washington (historically known to have the most intense weather in these mountains, and at times the world) were recorded at 130 MPH (category 3 hurricane) at this time on the same morning with a wind-chill of -19*F. Mount Lafayette is considered the 2nd most prominent peak in NH, second only to Washington. I know what you're thinking...YES I was running through frostbite inducing near-hurricane force conditions! In the back of my mind I knew that if something did happen to me that on this day, it was highly unlikely I would see anyone else on the mountain, at least not for several hours. I took this into consideration with every movement and step I took.

So anyway, circling back to the spirituality point I'm trying to make here. I've never considered myself a religious man, and it's been years since I've even considered any sort of spirituality in myself. Don't get me wrong, I've felt countless moments; like our wedding, the birth of a niece/nephew, the marriage of a close friend, an amazing sunset with my Woo, etc. where I like to say that "my heart felt full" but I've never in those moments felt any sort of spirituality. I don't want to diminish these other very significant and memorable moments of my life, but this was just different in some way.

Franconia Ridge Trail

Before we go any further, we should assign a definition to the term spirituality. According to this website from the University of Minnesota; spirituality is defined as "a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness." I don't know that I'd agree with this definition 100% but I think it gets to my point.

“If I believed in a heaven, what I experienced this morning is what I imagine it would feel like.”

I would say that what I experienced felt like a connection to something bigger than myself. What I felt absolutely made me feel deeply alive and connected to the world around me. Did it involve a search for the meaning in life? Was it transcendent? I don't know. What I do know though is that I've never in my life felt in such awe of my surroundings or felt so much gratitude for the ability I have to see these things and travel to these kind of places that allow me to be connected to the world around me. I do wish Woo could have been with me this morning, but also a part of me believes that being completely alone on the mountain is a big part of what led me to this overwhelming sense of wonder.

I mean, I literally could not feel my fingers or toes and literally (not figuratively) got blown over not once, but several times to my knees by the wind, but all I could do was stop and stare out into the clouds and mountains and take it all in. Now, a couple of days later, I have this ever-so-slight residual numbness I'm still feeling in one of my fingers. Hopefully that goes away soon, but if not it was totally worth it to really absorb every second I could out there.

I should also point out that this run was in no way physically taxing for me. The distance of the run was far shorter than my average runs and significantly less than other ultra-distance events I've completed in the White and other mountains around the world. The elevation gain for the loop was only about 4,500 feet which is a good day running, but again not exhaustive by any means. I make this clarification because what I felt was was not related to extreme physical exertion. What I felt was also not related to adrenaline and excitement by doing something so "extreme." I've felt these emotions before, but today was not the same, it was so much more intense.

Shortly after reaching the summit of Lafayette I took this video (below) of the clouds blowing by the sun on the horizon. There were sharp and bright bursts of sunlight shining through and then seconds later, complete grey with no visible sign of the sun itself.

After stopping for a few minutes here I knew I had to move on as I had about 2.5 more miles above the treeline ahead of me and 2 more summits to hit on Lincoln and Little Haystack before I got to any cover again. This would be the most intense and dangerous part of the adventure for today fighting the wind and cold alone for nearly an hour. I had to dust off the trail markers to make sure I was headed in the correct direction, and moved onward. By the time I had made it another ~1/2 mile before the summit of Lincoln the clouds had all but cleared making way for the most incredible sunrise my eyes had ever seen. And believe you me, I've seen some bad-ass sunrises!

This video (below - excuse my thumb, it was everything I could do to hold onto the GoPro and not let it get blown away) was taken no more than 10 minutes after the above video, yet as you can see in 20 seconds, the visibility and sunrise are night and day.

It was at this point in the morning that I was just beginning to feel how memorable of a day it was going to be. Again, don't get me wrong, it would have been a GREAT day regardless. It would have been a great day if I had my Woo or a friend alongside me for the adventure, but I do know it wouldn't have been the same. I could feel something inside me. Something restless. Something new. I still don't know exactly what to call it, but I know it was there; in my heart. If I could bottle up this feeling and sell it, I'd have more money than Jeff Bezos. Everyone needs to feel what I felt. I compared it with a couple of close friends to maybe what someone with children would feel like when their kid did something amazing or they were so proud of them, but I think it's different than a feeling of your heart being "so full it could explode."

Epic sunrise
Greg selfie along the sunny ridge line

​​I do enjoy getting in a good yoga class, and used to go with some regularity (though not since we moved to Maine...). I'll be honest though, that feeling when you get to the end of a session where an instructor asks you to sit and feel gratitude and be grateful for your practice/journey/life/wherever you are in the world, etc. has always felt a little odd to me. I usually just kind of sit there and wait for the session to be over. I've seen friends and family talk or write about being full of gratitude for their lives, adventures, businesses, whatever the case may be...but I've never felt anything like I felt on this day. The conditions that brought me here on this very morning; being alone, being freezing, only getting a few hours of sleep the night before, being blown around like a rag doll, not expecting to see the sunrise, and maybe even with it being around the Christmas holiday, all led me to this moment. A moment where I sat down against a boulder and just waited. Just watched. Until I couldn't feel my hands any more and knew that I had to get moving. This moment was one of the few I imagine I'll flash back to on my death-bed one day.

I eventually made my way up to my feet and continued on my adventure for the day. Although, I was compelled to stop frequently to take photos and soak in the mountains more times than I probably should have. As I continued down the ridge line to Little Haystack the clouds blew in again for a while and consumed the views off the mountain (see video below).

This ~2.5 section of trail, the Franconia Ridge Trail, between Lafayette and LIttle Haystack is without a doubt my favorite section of trail in the world that I've ever run. The first time I ever came up here was with my Woo on what was then her longest ever run/hike and our longest trail/running adventure ever together. FFS the Pemi Loop (a 31 mile hike/run loop that encompasses this stretch of trail) is etched on my wedding band, that's how much these mountains mean to me personally. I can't think of these mountains without thinking about how much I love my wife or how incredibly lucky I am to be able to really first-hand experience the world we live in. THIS IS WHY I RUN.

After getting to Little Haystack I was admittedly pretty ready to have some tree cover and be able to unfreeze my eyelashes from my eyes and maybe just maybe try to get some water out of my frozen water bottles. Though, I would have no such luck.

Ice formation along trail

I turned to head home on the Falling Waters trail which brings you back down the mountain to the trailhead where I began my adventure a couple hours earlier. Aptly named, Falling Waters follows alongside and across a stream that comes down off the mountain. It is beautiful by all accounts.

Running down the mountain covered in ice/snow in my spikes was remarkably easy. Runs like this when there is just a minimal amount of packed snow cover are so much fun. They actually work to cover the rocks and roots along the trail to make it smoother in most cases, allowing for faster pace and footwork. I had the biggest imaginable smile on my face as I barreled down every stretch of smooth terrain I could find.

When I finally got to the car I was disappointed that my run was over. I longed to do it again or to just add on a few more miles, but I knew it wouldn't be the same. It may never be.

Official distance of 8.1 miles and moving time of 2 hours and 12 minutes.

Waterfall along the trail

(above - waterfall rushing down the Falling Waters Trail)

Looking back toward Lafayette after coming out of the clouds

(above - Looking back north toward Lafayette after coming out of the clouds)

(above - sunrise toward Lincoln Mountain facing southeast)

(above - sunrise peeking above the cloud due east)


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